March 5th, 2009 | Published in Reporting commentary
Richard Fernandez in a recent post at the Belmont Club said that when complex systems break down we don’t know how they will reconstitute themselves – only that they will. Put another way, it is what Rumsfeld called a known unknown. While Fernandez had the entire political economic system that has prevailed since WWII in mind, my main interest is in how a subsystem of that world order – the MSM – has been breaking down under the changes in the media environment. We are currently watching the oldest part of the MSM – the printed newspaper – go out of business undermined by the Internet and finished off by the economic collapse. Broadcast is in trouble too, but their demise is not so immanent. While it is an unknown unknown what will take their place and create the new institutions around which a new complex system will form, it has been clear for some time that the Internet has circumvented the industrial age ability to control what is published by virtue of its ownership of the means of production. The blog Augeanstables is an excellent example a new Internet phenomena which arose when BU Professor Richard Landes saw the al Durah outtakes and recognizing them as strong evidence of media fraud. Unsurprisingly the MSM wasn’t interested in the case he made for the routine faking of news footage which he dubbed Pallywood because it exposes the MSM’s betrayal of journalistic standards and the public trust. In my view the public is far more aware of that betrayal than the MSM realizes. Even their very own monument to themselves, The Newseum in Washington DC, reports that over half of the American public does not trust the MSM. The rise of independent journalists is another important indicator of what might become a new institution – journalists we trust because we pay them directly. I don’t think it was a coincidence that at least two of them – Yon and Totten – were at Richard Landes’ the Herzilya conference in 2006 which was themed ‘Media as a Theater of War.’
More broadly, the Internet provides us the means to break out of the passive mind set that we are a powerless audience helpless to change the narratives presented to us by the media. We can become a more active audience in the new media environment and seek out better material on the Internet and, if we have the time, participate by commenting and blogging. In my experience it does little good to stay in our comfort zone – to just read what we are prepared to agree with. That is just what traditional news organizations do – keep their audience cocooned in a seamless world-view where little or nothing contradictory is allowed to intrude. I believe the MSM still succeeds in passing off propaganda as journalism in large part because it is the only voice most people hear. In my experience to be an effective active user of the Internet we need to both confirm our views to understand them better and also deal with material that challenges and expands those views. We can support independent journalists from whom we get real value and reduce our exposure to, and support for, the MSM. If we haven’t already we can stop accepting the MSM’s version of events uncritically.
Having been directly involved in blogging for a few years I think we are learning that it is not easy to overthrow a mass media created delusion quickly with small audience media like blogs or podcasts, but we can puncture the delusion and make it leak. For me as a former media studies teacher who deliberately taught his students to fake TV footage to inoculate them against the duplicity of the MSM, Augaeanstables stands out for me as prime example example of what can be done. It is also worth remembering that at the height of newspaper dominance at the beginning of the 20th century during the Deyfuss case Zola was able to destroy a mass media illusion with a single blow (J’accuse) because he attacked using mass media. The MSM understands that it can be undone by scandal and keeps repairing the small punctures but I believe it is highly vulnerable because it can no longer weave its cocoon unmolested by the blogosphere and because its ability to sustain the cocoon is severely reduced by decreased revenue. Perhaps the Internet will degenerate into a cacophony of false voices or perhaps a new and better journalism will arise that will become a sounder basis for civil society than the current MSM. Interestingly ordinary people will have a very big say in how it turns out.